Sunday, 12 October 2008

Modernism: the lure of heresy by Peter Gay

A fascinating and authoritative overview of modernism across the artistic disciplines. Gay stretches the lifespan of modernism in comparison with other historians, finding its beginnings in the works of Théophile Gautier and placing its birth firmly with the publication of Madame Bovary and Les Fleurs du Mal; he extends the modernist project well into the 1960s with Liechtenstein and Warhol identified as continuing to produce work modernist in flavour. Gay is exceptionally good at identifying, whether in architecture, dance or poetry, the essential qualities of the work that make it modernist; this skill is particularly apparent in the chapter on anti-modern modernists such as Hamsun and Eliot, who applied the innovations of modernism to support deeply conservative opinions. One of Gay's key defining characteristics of modernism is elitism, the need for modernism to define itself as high culture by establishing an oppositional low culture. In my view this point is stretched a little, especially when considering Liechtenstein as an artist who has combined high and low culture in his work and also as a modernist. However, this does not undermine the narrative of the origins, development and decline of modernism, though all its byways and aberrations, which is beautifully constructed and a pleasure to read.

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